Learning how to scuba dive on Grand Turk Island

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Melanie learns scuba at Bohio Grand Turk

DAY ONE OF FOUR — I wake to the sound of waves crashing right outside. There are palm trees, sand and hardly any people. That’s because Bohio Resort (www.bohioresort.com) about a half-hour flight on a small plane from Providenciales in Turks and Caicos has just 16 rooms.

 

“People come here for the diving,” says Tom Allen, who with his wife Ginny now manage the place—a “second act” for Canadians whose kids have grown. The diving is indeed spectacular—Grand Turk’s famous underwater “wall” is a mere 500 yards off shore.

“They come for the tranquility,” adds Ginny.

 

We’re here for the diving. Turks and Caicos, which actually includes over 40 islands and cays, lies about 575 miles southeast of Miami. The Bahamas are just 30 miles northwest; the Dominican Republic 100 miles to the southeast.

 

We flew on American’s one nonstop flight from JFK. Getting here will soon be easier as Jet Blue starts service from New York and Boston and Continental  from Newark.

 

But this trip, we don’t stop in Provo known for all-inclusive like Beaches (http://www.beaches.com/main/tc/tc-home.cfm), trendy hotels like the Gansevoort (http://www.gansevoortturksandcaicos.com/) and condos like the Sands and Somerset Bay—all on spectacular white-sand beach.

 

We hop an Air Turks and Caicos plane for the 35 minute flight to Grand Turk, the capitol where just 6,000 people live surrounded by reef so beautiful it attracts dive enthusiasts from around the world.

 

My daughter Mel, 19, and I have come so that she can complete the four-day PADI course (www.padi.com) and become a certified diver, as am I. Truth be told, this was supposed to be a family trip over New Years—Mel’s older brother and dad also are divers—but a blizzard in New York derailed our plans. Rather than forgo the opportunity altogether, she and I opted to make it a shorter, girls trip.

 

No one comes here or to any dive resort expecting luxury. The rooms are clean, comfortable, painted a cheery Caribbean blue with vaulted wooden ceilings and a ceiling fan, a balcony and the ocean so close we hear it whenever the door is open.   What Mel will get is one-on-one instruction at a small resort like this from Hilary Sutton, an Englishwoman who has been teaching diving and working as a dive master all over the Caribbean for 30 years. What I get are instant friends to dive with, share a cocktail and a meal—at a resort like this, everyone becomes fast friends.  

 

We do get stellar meals—everything from fresh grouper and snapper to huge steaks, leg of lamb, chicken curry and fantastic chocolate cake. I love that this is a place you can eat a huge meal or just a salad  (they even have pizza).  The Guanahani restaurant, manned by South African chef Jurika Mehnde is considered the best on the island.  That food is so good at a dive resort isn’t a given, long time divers here tell me. 

                  

Mel  had already completed an e-course before we left home. It’s also possible to complete the pool sections at a YMCA or with a dive club. We decided she would do it all here over the course of four days with Hilary. “Ask me anything,” she tells Mel as they begin to arrange the gear-the mask, fins, regulator, BCD (Boyancy Compensation Device) and the 30-pound tank to practice in the resort’s small pool. “No question is too stupid.”  And remember, she adds, “This is meant to be fun, even the learning part.”

 

Mel has an audience: Eight year old Markinson Seide, whose Dad Eddie works here watches intently, asking how old he must be to learn to dive (10 for a junior certification, Hillary says).

 

Like tennis, golf or snow sports, scuba diving is a life sport and one that kids can share with their parents as tweens, teens and adults.  Turks and Caicos is famous for its diving because these islands are surrounded by one of the most extensive coral reef systems in the world (65 miles across and 200 miles long).  There is terrific visibility, pristine reefs and plenty of marine life. Divers especially love the chance to drop off into the deep because of the reef wall that goes down 100 feet or more.  Even better, under the National Parks Ordinance, vast areas have been set aside as marine park.

 

Grand Turk and Bohio make me feel like this is what the Caribbean must have been like 30 years ago before mega resorts with its barefoot beach bar and the restaurant where the waitress knows our room number by the time we return for breakfast our first morning .

Cruise Ship passengers—some 30-40 ships a month—land at the big terminal on the other side  of the island and, watching Mel in the pool, I see a few cruise ship passengers who have found their way via taxi away from the hustle and the bustle.  “You come here to get away from that and relax,” said Ginny Allen.  Two couples got engaged here last week—one underwater while diving.  “The pace is very slow. If you run out of something, you just have to wait until the ship comes again.”

 

Yet there is a brand new hospital should you get sick, Wi-Fi at part of the resort and sunset Yoga and excellent food cooked by South African chef Jurika Mehnde who moved here some three years ago with her teenage son “A place is what you make it,” she says. What more do you need?

 

Hilary reminds Mel  that, no matter how good a swimmer you are (Mel is a certified lifeguard), “There is always a surprise,” when you are learning to dive.  If you think you might be interested, she suggests, invest in a one-day, 2.5 hour resort course (about $125) to see if it is for you before you go to the trouble and expense to get certified ($450 here, more expensive when you complete the  course state-side).  With the one-day course, you will get out in a boat and see what the excitement is all about underwater.

 

How does diving differ from snorkeling?  “Diving is what allows you to get spitting distance from the reef and the fish. You get a real feel for the environment,” she explains. I think so too—and it is so relaxing.  “My quiet time,” Hilary agrees.

 

Steve Giles, who oversees the dive operation here, adds that you won’t find many places where diving is so easy—a few steps between breakfast, the dive shop and your room. Another plus:  The dive spots are so close to shore that you can return to the beach for the required surface interval between a first and second dive of the day rather than staying on the boat. That is a real plus for anyone like me prone to sea sickness.

 

Another plus is that this is a small place and a small operation—typically no more than 10 or a dozen divers at a time. Anyone who has ever gone out on a big snorkel boat knows how pleasant that is—especially when you are learning. And Mel proves to be an A student, mastering the first three closed-water portions of the course by lunch time—taking her mask on and off, going from regulator to snorkel, knowing what to do if her “buddy” gets a cramp or is so tired she must be towed back to the boat She learns how to assemble and disassemble her equipment. I joke with Hilary that it is so much easier when you are certified and the dive masters do all the heavy lifting, if you choose, setting up your equipment.

 

There are 10 or 12 dive sites—I can’t wait to visit some of them—right after the BBQ and live music tonight, of course, where we chow down on ribs, grilled lobster, salads and rum punch while a local Caribbean band entertains us.

 

Next: fresh conch anyone?

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